Showing compassion towards others and creating a positive difference in other people’s lives has always been important to me. This quarter, Fall 2020, has been my first step onto the road towards getting my Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree. When my professor prompted me to conduct research for an essay, I knew I wanted to find a relevant topic that could help educate people on their health and wellness. I am hoping this paper will encourage people to begin the discussion about the need for comprehensive sex education in schools everywhere.
America’s educational system conventionally requires some form of sexual education curriculum in majority of states. The purpose of sexual education courses is to inform students about their sexual health in order to better prepare them for their future. With this being the case, many advocates are pushing to improve the current state of sexual education and transform it to a more comprehensive content course. Implementing information about relationship abuse if one aspect that many schools leave behind causing students to be less prepared when making decisions when it comes to sex. Not only that, but adding a deeper understanding of consent, more inclusive sexually-transmitted disease (STD) prevention for LGBTQ+ groups, and emphasizing the scope of contraceptive methods beyond abstinence-only will all better guide our youth. Using research from surveys and feedback results from students, the gathered consensus is that comprehensive sexual education is effective. From the statistics, the conclusion can be made that educating students as early as appropriate to their psychological understanding of emotion is important. Beginning to shape how children respect others will transition into teaching them medically accurate and socially inclusive sexual health education.
Keywords: Sexual Education, Comprehensive Sexual Education, Dating Abuse Programs, LGBTQ+ Sex Ed., Abstinence-only Education
Normalizing Comprehensive Sexual Education
When it comes down the preparedness and success of our future generation, the parents, registered voters, and influential advocates of our time must take responsibility for the education provided to our youth. Around the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislators ([NCSL], 2020), “Twenty-two states require that if provided, sex and/or HIV education must be medically, factually or technically accurate.” In simpler terms, only 44% of the nation is creating a sexual education curriculum based off of medical expertise and guidance. From the research done by Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization, they have found “ages 15 to 24 represent 25 percent of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs” (as cited in NCSL, 2020). Not only does this mean schools need to dive deeper into the medically guided components of sexual health, but they also need to introduce this health science earlier than the average age of 15 as prevention (NCSL, 2020). Similarly to other core subjects like physical education and science, teaching comprehensive sexual education will help students navigate making healthy choices as they grow into adulthood. The implementation of comprehensive sexual education courses in elementary school through high school is an effective component of curriculum to improve children’s understanding of healthy relationships, to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted disease, and to decrease the amount of unintended pregnancies.
The Inclusion of Dating/Relationship Violence Education
An aspect of sexual health that many educators and parents tend to overlook is healthy habits within a relationship how such healthy habits can reduce the tendency to fall into the cycle of abuse. Education surrounding emotional relationships is often ignored in school curriculums. Often children do not have parents who are in healthy marriages that they can look to as an example, or get guidance on what they should expect in a relationship. The cycle of abuse is a theory used to describe the pattern of how abusive relationships occur often. It begins with the victim complying with the abuser to reduce the tension between them. Next, the second stage is when the abuser lashes out and causes an incident of violent behavior towards the victim sexually, emotionally, verbally, or physically. Then, the abuser typically manipulates the victim into believing they’re remorseful of the acts they’ve committed. In the reading “Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships”, the author, Dr. Gary J. Maier (1996) expresses, “Unfortunately, all too many women remain in the victim role for years, and when they try to make attempts to change, they discover that they do not have enough energy to overpower the abuser.” No matter the age, if someone is not aware of the red flags and warning signs of abuse, they may get caught in the repeating cycle of their abuser. This can be emotionally and physically damaging for the victim, which is why educating students and providing them with resources of how to avoid this can set them up for a healthy future. A large aspect within abuse is learning about the word “consent”. Based off a study conducted by NORC, National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago in 2015, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America reported that, “Women were statistically significantly more likely than men to strongly agree that consent must be given at each step in a sexual encounter (women 27%, men 19%)” (Planned Parenthood, 2016). The overwhelming outcome of the survey released was that the confusion of what consent looks like is the result of poor education about the topic. Not only that, but the survey also revealed that, “Most people think that too little is being done to educate about sexual assault in high schools (63%) and colleges (61%)” (Planned Parenthood, 2016). The current education system too often fails to educate kids in how to properly respect access to each other’s bodies, which with simple improvement in curriculum could eliminate forms of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and incidents of rape. In the research article, “Consent at Every Age” Grace Tatter (2018a), a writer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, identifies the impact of introducing the idea of having control of your own body at a young age. She shares the knowledge of Gideon Kahn, a preschool teacher, who believes building a social-emotional foundation is key to preparing young children to understand the concept of consent. He says “Emotional intelligence, perspective-taking, empathy — these all allow you to basically understand your own feelings and the feelings of others, and are foundational to respect” (Kahn, 2018). Incorporating the teaching of small acts of self-awareness and self-control into a child’s life could improve their engagement with others and reduce the chance of them violating the rule of consent as they get older. In another article, “Sex Education That Goes Beyond Sex,” Tatter (2018b) states that “A recent study from Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that comprehensive sex education protects students from sexual assault even after high school.” When we can educate a class of kids about how to care for each other in an intimate relationship, the likelihood of the child committing an act of abuse will be less than without the discussion.
A Change to the Introduction of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Along with the concern about relationships and consent, incorporating education about the spread and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases will help students become aware of the risk when they engage in sexual practices. With the appropriate timing of educating a child on the topic of STDs, they can choose to live a healthier life. According to data from Centers of Disease Control and Prevention,“ Young people ages 13-24 account for 25 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States” (Szydlowski, 2015). As early as 13, kids are capable of engaging themselves in sexual activity that puts their well-being in jeopardy. If our education system can improve the material that is relayed to students about the serious consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, then numerous children could make their decisions off a more knowledgeable foundation. In the large scheme of things, it only takes one teacher to save an innocent child from making one mistake that could cost their whole life. The article cites the American Journal of Prevention Medicine that “A 2012 study that examined 66 sexual risk reduction programs found them to be an effective public health strategy to reduce adolescent pregnancy, HIV, and STDs” (Szydlowski, 2015). In order to add a more comprehensive take on sexual health, schools also need to begin to educate on the high risk that LGBTQ+ members have towards STDs. The Advocates for Youth organization shares the findings from Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that “young men who have sex with men account for the vast majority (87 percent) of HIV infections among young men” (Szydlowski, 2015). Sexual orientation is becoming more commonly discussed in modern times, which means that our education system needs to progress in order to educate at this crucial stage of development. Whether someone is in agreement or disagreement about the idea of “sexual preference”, the reality is that more people are open about their sexual identities, and it is now a part of the society we live in. Sex education must incorporate this aspect of sexuality, especially since the LGBTQ+ community are at such high risk for contracting STDs. Having a solid, inclusive curriculum about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases will help influence a person’s decision-making when it comes down to sexual activities.
Opening Up All Contraceptive Methods to Youth
As another part of educating about safety around sexuality, teaching young children about different contraceptive options and the risk of pregnancy will encourage safer decisions when becoming sexually involved. Traditionally, many schools have based their sexual education curriculum off the idea of that abstinence is the only moral way of behaving towards sex. This may stem from religious beliefs, such as that premarital sex is a sin, although this method of teaching has been proven to not be the most effective for a student’s health. In a study done by The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a group of researchers including Dr. Theresa Sipe, found that “AOUM [abstinence only until marriage] programs were no more likely than participants in control groups to abstain from sex, and if they were sexually active, the two groups had similar sexual behaviors including the number of partners and the age at initiation” (The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, 2017). In comparing the abstinence programs to ones that included comprehensive risk reduction, detailed interventions that teach ways to reduce pregnancy and STDs, they do not prepare young people to avoid pregnancy and do not inform them about the medical information about sex. On top of that, abstinence-only education can emotionally affect victims of sexual abuse or rape. In the article “Why Some People Hide Sexual Assault After Abstinence-Only Education”, a journalist, Gina Florio (2017), interviews Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, an organization that promotes access to sex education and provides insight as to why abstinence-only teaching is harmful. Cushman said, “Many abstinence-only programs instill fear and shame related to sexual behavior… This can make it harder for them to disclose sexual abuse because they feel ashamed and worry they’ll be judged for what happened to them” (as cited in Florio, 2017). The content may not be suited for some children because they may feel unsupported and not receptive because of prior experiences. When incorporating the education of contraceptive methods, this will result in students having the freedom to decide on the safest choice for themselves. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, [ACOG], (2015), “Currently, 49% of pregnancies are unintended”. If as a country we could reduce this number with the use of contraceptives, then fewer children would be in the hands of unprepared parents or in the foster care system. Not only do unplanned pregnancies cause a burden on the parent’s life, but “U.S. births from unintended pregnancies resulted in approximately $12.5 billion in government expenditures in 2008” (ACOG, 2015). By teaching students other methods of birth control like condoms, IUDs, the pill, and other various forms we would be cutting health care costs for tax-payers. In addition to that, having the discussion of contraceptive methods with school-aged kids will allow them to have the access and knowledge to prevent a dangerous pregnancy. Teen pregnancy can be fatal, and many young people may be ashamed to reach out for proper medical guidance. Public school drop-outs due to pregnancy would reduce if the use of contraceptives increased. Keeping kids in school promises more opportunities for their future success. Normalizing the use of birth control will give our youth the power to make their own sexual decisions without the risk of unplanned conception.
Countries Have Found Success in Comprehensive Sexual Education
Some may argue that the introduction to comprehensive sexual education at a young age will initiate earlier experimentation with sex. Although this may be a concern, several European countries, such as the Netherlands, have stepped ahead of America and already implemented teaching sexual and emotional health at the early age of 4. Dr. Amy Schalet, author of “Beyond Abstinence and Risk: A New Paradigm for Adolescent Sexual Health”, has found that, “among 12 to 25 year olds in the Netherlands, most say they had “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences” (as cited in Melker, 2015). In contrast, “66 percent of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they had waited longer to have sex for the first time” (as cited in Melker, 2015). Being able to talk about love and intimacy with children is setting the ideal that sexuality has to do with respect and honesty. The mind of a human is the most vulnerable and impressionable when they are young, which is why standardizing education that teaches about self-dignity and healthy relationships is crucial.
Providing comprehensive education in schools will start a healthy basis for children understanding and navigating their own sexual health. With students becoming educated about medically directed information towards pregnancy, contraceptives, and STDs, the future generation will be more aware of their options to stay safe. It gives them the authority over themselves to take responsibility for their sexual choices and leads them into a self-sufficient life. Adding more in-depth conversations about dating violence and relationships ensures that kids are knowledgeable about positive aspects like consent and respect for their partner. Having comprehensive sexual education be taught as a regulation would secure the opportunity for all children, no matter the location, to be taught important life skills about attitudes, personal rights, and communication. Demonstrating open expression and inclusiveness to sexual health will open doors for their sexual encounters in the future. It prepares children to make better informed decisions and to avoid situations that may harm them. Parents may choose to provide guidance as well, but there must be a standardized sexual education that can supplement what not all children are learning at home about our world.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynocologists. (2015). Access to Contraceptive. https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committeeopinion/articles/2015/01/access-to-contraception
Florio, G. (2017, July 24). Why Some People Hide Sexual Assault After Abstinence-Only Education. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/abstinence-only-education-shame
Maier, G. J., (1996). Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/understanding-dynamics-abusive-relationships
Melker, S. (2015, May 29). The case for starting sex education in kindergarten. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/spring-fever
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020, October 1). State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
Planned Parenthood, (2016). New National Survey from Planned Parenthood Shows Need to Educate Young People on Consent and Sexual Assault. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/new-national-survey-from-planned-parenthood-shows-need-to-educate-young-people-on-consent-and-sexual-assault
Santelli, J., Grilo, S., Lindberg, L., Speizer, I., Schalet, A., Heitel, J. … Mason-Jones, A. (2017). Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policies and Programs: An Updated Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. https://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(17)30297-5/fulltext
Szydlowski, M. (2015). Sexual Health Education: Research and Results. https://advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/storage/advfy/documents/school-health-equity/sexual-healthed-research-and-results.pdf
Tatter, G. (2018a, December 19). Consent at Every Age. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/12/consent-every-age
Tatter, G. (2018b, November 28). Sex Education that Goes Beyond Sex. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/11/sex-education-goes-beyond-sex